Defender of the Crown How to Play Tournament

Tournament of Unknown Lands: The Smaller World of Football

Countries like Abkhazia, Padania or Vanuatu play at the Conifa. But there is also a dispute in the confederation of independent football associations.

Szeklerland fans at the Conifa World Cup 2018 in London Photo: Zuma / imago

In the cold February of this year, James & James broke the collar. "We are stepping out of the Conifa," decided the two football experts in Jersey. It gets uncomfortable on the British Channel Island in the winter months. Icy wind, with constant sleet or rain showers - sweet life looks different. The bad mood of the two soccer enthusiasts James Scott and James Blower was less due to the cold on their island than to the fact that their favorite child, the soccer team Parishes of Jersey (PoJ), is struggling with difficulties. The Jersey footballers had been looking forward to their highlight of the season: the Conifa European Championship in 2021. But PoJ were not invited.

"This is just a cheap return coach to ensure that we haven't blindly followed the current leaders at Conifa recently," says James Blower, PoJ's team manager, with certainty. Parishes of Jersey, translated as County of Jersey, is the unofficial national soccer team of this island, it is coached by the second part of James & James. James Scott. For the 40-year-old - who grew up in Jersey and was once a tough defender on the football field - the isolation as a Jersey footballer was always an annoying circumstance because the island was formally part of the British crown possession, but was never accepted into the English league. So the footballers of the 100,000-inhabitant island always kept to themselves.

After the end of his playing career, Scott and namesake Blower, who had previously acted as a sponsor as a businessman, set about getting Jersey's football activities going. In 2016, the two submitted an application for membership to the European football association Uefa, which was refused in February 2018. In the same year they therefore founded a “wild” team, PoJ, in order to be able to play international games outside of organized world football, so to speak. Because in the meantime they had received an offer of admission from Sascha Düerkop, the then General Secretary of Conifa.

The Conifa (Confederation of Independent Football Associations) is, so to speak, an umbrella organization for football teams outside the world association Fifa: for states without international recognition, for ethnic minorities, for regions or for micronations. In the "eternal table" of the World Football Championships (WFC) held by Conifa every two years since 2014, Abkhazia, a region on the Black Sea formally belonging to Georgia, is currently ahead of Padania from Northern Italy, Northern Cyprus and Punjab from the Indian-Pakistani border area. The association would also like to have financially strong regions such as Corsica, Brittany, Tyrol, the Basque Country or Catalonia with them, because a chronic lack of money is one of Conifa's main problems.

The game of football outsiders is of no interest to global TV, and potent sponsors are hardly interested. WFC and the European Championship, which is always held in the intervening years, therefore take place on a very simple, cost-neutral level. The games are played on district sports facilities, and overnight stays are usually organized in youth hostels or similarly inexpensive accommodation. However, some teams cannot even afford to travel to the tournaments.

A German as Secretary General

The second constant challenge for the Conifa lies in tough political negotiations, because the resentment against a large number of its 50 members at the best of times is sometimes great. After all, it is often selected teams from unrecognized countries that have been fighting for their independence for years. On the part of the Conifa, diplomatic skills and tenacity are required - virtues that once brought the German Sascha Düerkop into the association.

Düerkop, mathematician with a strong passion for collecting national soccer jerseys, had become one of the most important men in Conifa in 2013 by a great coincidence. At a conference he met the Conifa boss Per-Anders Blind, who had just joined the company. As life sometimes goes, Düerkop was soon able to convince the Swedish entrepreneur of his tenacity in dealing with football officials and associations. This is exactly what collector Düerkop had learned almost to perfection in his years of correspondence with potential jersey owners all over the world.

Düerkop made a career at Conifa and proved to be a doer of everything in the organization of the association's European and World Championships. He took care of difficult cases both at the 2014 World Cup in Östersund and at the following European Championship in 2015 in Debrecen, the 2016 World Cup in Abkhazia and finally the 2018 World Cup in London. In 2014, for example, he fought for a team from Darfur to participate until the opening day of the World Cup - the players only received a visa from the French embassy three hours before departure. The fact that almost all of the 23 team members finally settled in Sweden and went into hiding was a hard blow for the Conifa. But in the end it was still a humanly successful mission: "In the end, all the players settled in Sweden, found jobs and were able to start a new life there," reports Düerkop.

The 2016 World Cup in Abkhazia was officially held in a war region - the journey of the twelve teams was correspondingly difficult. The "Republic of Abkhazia" sees itself as an independent state, but is regarded by Georgia and most countries in the world as part of Georgia. Abkhazia is recognized and supported by Russia, so the arrival of the footballers was only possible via the Russian city of Sochi. But in the Abkhazian capital Sukhumi, right on the Black Sea, the atmosphere was great. “We had a sold out house every time, and the partying continued on the streets at night,” recalls Düerkop.

The secret of success: the President's cell phone number

The integration of otherwise isolated or unaccepted minorities is, so to speak, everyday work for the Conifa. In 2018 in London, Düerkop was particularly interested in the participation of the Matabeleland region from Zimbabwe. But here too: things were difficult, the players were not given visas. Ultimately, Zimbabwe's ex-national goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar intervened, who gave Düerkop the cell phone number of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. He finally gave in after daily calls from Düerkops and released the visa.

Düerkop was also particularly fond of the footballers from Tuvalu. The football association of the small Pacific island state, whose land mass consists of many small coral atolls, had tried in vain for many years to be accepted into FIFA. Düerkop not only helped Tuvalu's negotiations with the world association, he also invited the team to the 2018 World Cup in London and supported the travel preparations. On their 40-hour flight, which cost around 4,000 euros per person, the team had to change trains four times and arrived in the English capital completely exhausted - to play their first World Cup match just 24 hours later on an unfamiliar artificial turf field on the northern edge of London deny. But it was there.

Ultimately, however, London was also something like a farewell performance by Düerkop. Because then it crashed in the association. Association president Per-Anders Blind and his European boss Alberto Rischio from Padania wanted to promote a change of course: In order to be able to prefer more financially strong candidates in the future, the qualification system developed by Düerkop, with which applicants could gain participation in the competitions, was to be abolished . The teams collected points through friendly matches, and even defeats brought something countable. “Activity was in the foreground here,” explains Düerkop. "In my eyes, a defeat was always worth more than not playing at all."

Blind and Rischio prevailed at a meeting of the association in early 2020 with their more commercial orientation - it was also about posts. Especially the Lombard Rischio was never undisputed by Düerkop and his people. The entrepreneur from the automotive industry was always suspected of being a member of the Lega. The right-wing party, also known as the Northern League, has been advocating the division of Italy into a north and a south for many years. And because the Lega stands for nationalist politics and creates a hostile atmosphere, it doesn't really fit in with the Conifa values. "Conifa is about connecting people, countries and peoples through football," explains Düerkop.

So there was a power struggle in the Conifa, as a result of which Düerkop and some of his supporters resigned from their offices. The German left the association. The representatives of Darfur went with him, for example. A few weeks later they founded the World Unity Football Alliance (Wufa), an alternative association to Conifa, so to speak - without a Düerkop, by the way. But with James & James from Jersey, who joined the Wufa like 16 other former Conifa members.

So now there are two instead of just one alternative association to Fifa - it has created a lot of confusion. For the next Conifa men's European championship, which is currently set to take place in Nice in July, the places were randomly assigned by invitation. Jersey was not included. Officially, because it did not pay the 500 euro annual fee. James Blower is sure that the reasons lie elsewhere: "Because we voted for Düerkop and his people back then."

However, Blower does not want to be dissuaded from his plans with his soccer team PoJ. “We're ticking off the current season, because of Corona hardly anything is going anyway. Instead, we are concentrating entirely on the 2021/22 season, where we are planning a lot of friendly matches and would also like to host a tournament on Jersey, ”he explains. It is quite possible that a kind of world championship will take place on Jersey. Only that it will then not be organized under the roof of the Conifa, but under that of the Wufa.